How to Improve Digital Accessibility for People with Anxiety

December 16, 2021

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States — 18.1% of the population. While anxiety affects people in profoundly different ways, it’s the country’s most common type of mental illness. 

Web design choices and development decisions can directly affect how people with anxiety experience your content. Fortunately, the best practices of accessibility aren’t intended to address one particular group of people with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide guidance for creating useful content for your entire audience, and many of the best practices in the WCAG framework can remove barriers that affect people with anxiety disorders. 

In this article, we’ll discuss some of those practices. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and many other WCAG success criteria are applicable. To determine whether your content is reasonably accessible, we recommend auditing your website for conformance with the latest version of the WCAG guidelines.

Keep your site’s navigation elements consistent and predictable

Consistent navigation benefits all readers, and it’s especially helpful for people with anxiety disorders, low vision, and cognitive conditions. WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria (SC) 3.2.3, “Consistent Navigation" states:

Navigational mechanisms that are repeated on multiple Web pages within a set of Web pages occur in the same relative order each time they are repeated, unless a change is initiated by the user.

Essentially, this means that each page on a website uses the same basic layout and navigation controls as other pages. This enables users to quickly locate information and interact with the site naturally. 

For example, if your website contains a header menu — and the header menu doesn’t change from page to page — users won’t need to click back and forth to find the content they want. Sudden changes in structure can be confusing and alarming, so make sure that your site provides a similar experience from page to page.

Read: Why Consistency is Important to Accessible Design

Write descriptive headings and use them consistently

When creating content, pay attention to structural elements. Large blocks of text can be intimidating — and can trigger symptoms for some people with anxiety. 

Subheadings can improve readability for longer pieces of content, and heading tags are essential for web accessibility and search engine optimization (SEO). Your readers can use subheadings to find the information they need without reading through every single sentence.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your headings describe your content accurately. Incorporate keywords that tell users what they’ll find by reading each section of your page.  
  • Use subheadings in sequential order. For more information about the importance of subheading order, read the blog linked here. 
  • Don’t write extremely long header tags. Keep your headings simple and descriptive.
  • Look for other ways to “break up” long content. Consider using HTML lists where appropriate (for example, we’re using an unordered list here to make these tips more readable). 
  • Images and videos can also improve the user experience, provided that you follow the best practices of accessibility (such as adding alternative text) when adding multimedia.

Avoid creating unnecessary time limitations (or giving the appearance of time limitations).

WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.1, “Timing Adjustable,” requires websites to provide users with the ability to extend (or turn off) time limits. For example, if a website automatically logs out users after a certain period of time, the user should receive a notification warning them — and the option to prevent the timeout. Like many accessibility practices, this accommodation has benefits for all users, not just people with anxiety disorders.

Likewise, avoid language that implies a certain time limit. Text like “Only one item left! Order now!” can irritate your audience and create an uncomfortable experience.

Consider the full spectrum of disabilities when designing your content

Many practices outlined in WCAG 2.1 apply to people with panic and anxiety disorders — but the guidelines don’t specifically mention these groups. The goal of accessibility is to improve digital experiences for everyone, and barriers that affect one specific group often affect others.

Conforming with WCAG 2.1 helps you reach a wider audience. For example, by providing consistent navigation elements, you can accommodate people who use screen readers; in the process, you’ll also improve the experiences of users with low vision, neurocognitive differences, and other conditions. Adding a video transcript will accommodate users who can’t perceive multimedia visually, while also providing users with another option if they’d prefer not to watch video content.

Accessibility has enormous benefits for brands and users. If your organization is ready to prioritize accessibility, our compliance roadmap provides an excellent starting point. 

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